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Niger to Hold First Ever Local Elections - 2004-07-23


The impoverished West African state of Niger is holding its first-ever local elections on Saturday, ahead of legislative and presidential elections scheduled for later this year. The opposition in Niger is campaigning on an anti-corruption platform.

Since independence in 1960, Niger's mayors and local councilors have been appointed by presidential decree.

That will change after Saturday, when 14,000 polling booths will open for the country's first local elections.

More than 30 political parties and independent candidates are competing. Over five million people out of a total population of 11 million can vote.

The country's first multiparty elections were in 1993.

But the leader of the opposition PNDS Socialist party, Mahamadou Issoufou, said that it is time for more democracy.

He said that he hopes voters will use their increased power to, "sanction the patrimonial conduct of government affairs."

He added that since presidential and parliamentary elections in 1999, a series of damning corruption cases have been made public. These include government officials selling off donated Japanese rice and embezzling school funds.

Mr. Issoufou also said that voters must act to check this abuse of power.

The ruling National Movement for Society and Development has campaigned on a platform of stability. Since being elected in 1999, President Mamadou Tandja has prevented several army mutinies from turning into coups that plagued the country during the 1990s.

He called for peaceful local elections that, "would not disrupt the country's peaceful farmers."

Campaigning for Saturday's poll lasted just 10 days. One observer, local human rights campaigner Bague Hima, lamented running street battles that took place between opposing camps.

Mr. Hima said that he understands the fervor that comes with elections, but that there should be less intolerance between opponents. At least three children were crushed to death during the recent political rallies.

Several international observers will monitor the vote, which is being paid for by foreign donors.

Niger is one of the world's poorest countries and has minimal government services. Its economy centers on subsistence farming and increasingly less on its uranium because of lower world demand.

Legislative elections are scheduled for October, while a presidential poll is expected before the end of the year.

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